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Seni-G

A Letter to my Father

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A Letter to My Father.mp3

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I recently put the finishing touches to a piece I composed back in 2008, “A Letter to My Father.”

This piece is actually the third movement from my string quartet “Jackdaw.” Therefore at its heart it is based on the life and writings of Franz Kafka, like all the other music in that quartet. However this music has special meaning for me as well (also like all the music in that quartet). It feels especially meaningful during this current time in my life, when my own interactions with my father have become so very strange.

Kafka’s Letter to his Dad

When Kafka was about 36, he wrote a nasty letter to his dad. Apparently his father Hermann was a pretty difficult guy, constantly ridiculing Kafka for being a weakling, while refusing to care one bit that his son was a genius. Kafka’s stories are real mind-benders. The realities they portray are just “off” enough that they feel like they could be real life. One can recognize the landscape, envision oneself living in that world, but something in the reality is very wrong. Sometimes it’s hard to put one’s finger on… but impossible to ignore. Like the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the stories have the power to make one doubt one’s own world, to make one doubt mankind as a whole. It’s delicious writing, and frankly still horrifying to this day. Despite young Franz’s clear talent, Poppa Kafka just didn’t respect his son, and he made that known at every opportunity.

By age 36, Franz was tired of Hermann’s crap. He busted out some paper and really let Dad have it, for 45 hand-written pages. In his own way, Kafka believed that this letter would help heal their relationship, but in reality the letter was full of complaints, accusations, and invective. He plumbed the depths of his own hurt, and wrung the emotions out onto the page. If the letter is to be believed, Hermann was a toxic and narcissistic hypocrite, an abusive tyrant who never gave his fragile son even a kindly word or friendly look in all his life. The writing is heart-breaking and so very relatable, ripe as it is with a certain timeless pain that has been felt by so many sons across so many generations.

In one episode, Kafka describes a traumatizing experience from his childhood: one evening at bedtime he was begging his father for some water (perhaps even being a bit bratty about it), when his father, always a large and intimidating man, burst into his bedroom without warning and, in a rage, grabbed the small boy and locked him outside on the balcony with nothing on but his thin cotton sleep shirt. Kafka writes:

I was quite obedient afterwards at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the balcony, and that meant I was a mere nothing for him.

Franz Kafka, from Letter to His Father

Not only is this a sad story of parental mismanagement and emotional scarring, but it is also such a great insight into why so much of Kafka’s writing features nameless, faceless authority figures who carry out irrational sentences with a total lack of empathy or emotional connection. Moments that feature characters like that are some of the more disturbing vignettes from his stories; they make it all too easy to picture oneself being dragged away by faceless agents of the state who have no sense of human morality or concern for life. Kafka was able to translate his tragic daddy issues into terrifying metaphors for what it’s like to live in modern society. Now THAT’S how to cope with a bad upbringing.

  • kafksdad.jpg Kafka’s father Hermann
  • 220px-Kafka1906_cropped.jpg Franz Kafka as a young man

Let’s all write letters to our dads!

Funny story: I had to send a letter to my own father recently. Mine was not as nasty as Kafka’s, nor was my father anywhere near as abusive as Hermann. But father-son relationships can be all varieties of strange, and mine definitely falls on that spectrum. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that at pretty much the same age as Kafka when he wrote his letter, I found something about my father’s behavior and treatment of me that I found questionable, and so I wrote a letter that I wish I didn’t have to write. It delivered the message, though I’m not sure it did anything to heal our relationship.

When Kafka completed his letter, he hand delivered it to his mother, and asked her to bear the letter to his father. Her mother read it once and immediately decided to hide it forever. As much as Kafka might have hoped his manifesto would help heal old wounds, his mother felt differently, and refused to take any part in provoking the monumental explosion that would likely follow should Hermann ever read it. My own letter was delivered directly to my father, though I’m actually not sure he read it. One can never know these things when direct communication becomes impossible.

Long story short, this music ain’t just about Kafka. I hope someday someone writes about how I skillfully took my familial pain and transformed it into timeless art we can all relate to. Whether or not that ever happens, I will say this: writing the music always makes me feel better.

Edited by Seni-G
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I like what you've done here. There were a few times where it got a little harder to follow, but I think that the sort of nebulousness matches your own feelings towards your father. I hope that writing this piece of music brought you some sort of peace and perhaps closure. I think that this type of music is extremely important as it comes from a very real and raw artistic place, and is therapeutic to the artist as well as those who listen to it. Keep at it!

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On 2/14/2019 at 10:02 AM, JordanRoberts said:

I think that this type of music is extremely important as it comes from a very real and raw artistic place, and is therapeutic to the artist as well as those who listen to it.

Agreed. 

@Seni-G

Real and raw are very good words to use to describe this music.  Like Jordan, I didn't always understand quite where you were going, but I enjoyed the ride for sure.  

What was the significance of the monumental soliloquy for the 'cello toward the end?  I did feel like it interrupted the flow some.  Otherwise, a really excellent piece, and your written introduction was likewise excellent.  My compliments!  

It's interesting, all this talk about fathers and complicated relationships with them.  My father was a brilliant man, but according to my aunt (his sister), he came back from the Korean War a very different person than when he left.  Probably to soothe his own pain, he drank to the point of becoming a morbid alcoholic who couldn't hold down a job and was a pretty awful parent a lot of the time.  Shortly before my 11th birthday, my long-suffering mother finally gathered up my brother, sister, and me, and she left him.  Whenever he came around after that, ostensibly to visit us kids, he'd invariably pick a fight with my mother, if he bothered to show up for his court-ordered visitation at all.  When I was 13, I finally got on the horn with him and told him not to come around anymore, that we'd had it with his scraggy and he could hit the road if he couldn't behave any better than that.  That took a lot of guts on my part.  I was hoping it would shake him into getting help and sobering up, but instead he took me at my word, and we never heard from him again.  Fast forward to the late 1990s, and my sister found him somehow, and gave me his email address.  I wrote him a cordial email at first, to which he responded cordially.  Then in my next missive, I let him have it with both barrels, telling him how difficult growing up without a father had been, and basically blaming him for every horrible thing that had ever happened to me.  He never responded to that one, but I felt better having gotten it off my chest.  I wasn't going to let him go to his grave thinking everything had been sunshine and rainbows after he disappeared.  And go to his grave he did shortly thereafter - I got a letter from a probate lawyer about 9 months after he died in 2001, letting me know he'd left me about $13,000.  He turned out to be a better provider in death than he ever was in life.  Like you did, about 10 years ago I started a music project in hopes of healing my thing with my Dad once and for all.  It was to be a big Requiem Mass in C minor.  I got a couple of movements sketched, but I just couldn't finish it.  Maybe someday.  At any rate, I sincerely hope the man is at peace at last.  

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